Maria Sharapova's preparations for her return to SW19 suffered a surprise setback yesterday when the former Wimbledon champion's expected passage to the final of the DFS Classic tournament at Edgbaston was derailed by the American outsider Jamea Jackson.
The 19-year-old from Florida, ranked 81 in the world and playing in her first tour semi-final, prevailed 6-4 6-4 in one hour and 33 minutes after an out-of-sorts Sharapova demonstrated she has some way to go to regain her best form after an injury-disrupted year.
The Russian, seeking her third consecutive Birmingham title, struggled from the opening game, handing Jackson an immediate break and though she responded well initially, breaking back to love, she was never able to settle into any kind of rhythm.
Broken again in games five and seven and with two set points against her at 3-5, Sharapova climbed out of one hole but could not do so in the next game. Jackson struggled to close out a marathon 10th game as Sharapova drew on her experience to test the American's nerve. But there was always another mistake around the corner and a forehand into the net handed Jackson the set at the fifth time of asking.
Showing few signs of nerves, Jackson was ahead from the fifth game in the second set, in which Sharapova lost her serve for a fourth time before her father's audible intervention from the sidelines brought a code violation for coaching. When Sharapova held serve to love at 4-5, another opponent might have wobbled but Jackson's resolve held so impressively firm that two match points in the next game were enough.
When a punched, deep forehand was returned into the net by Sharapova to give Jackson victory - and deal her opponent only a fourth defeat on grass in 38 matches - it prompted a whoop of delight from Jackson and a grin that seemed likely to remain fixed for several hours afterwards.
"I know Jamea well from our days with Nick Bollettieri and the two matches I have played against her previously have been tough, even though I won," Sharapova said. "Her performance did not come as a surprise because I know she is a good player."
Having missed much of the clay-court season because of ankle and foot problems before going out of the French Open in round four, Sharapova has ground to make up physically and in match sharpness before she attempts to regain the Wimbledon crown she won in 2004. She believes a week of practice in London will do much to put that right.
"I've played four matches in four days here, which is good," she said. "And it has been a kind of reality check for the things I need to work on. I know now where I need to improve."
Jackson, once she has regained her sense of reality after her "best-ever result" must now meet another Russian, the former world No 9 Vera Zvonareva, in today's final. Zvonareva recovered from a set down to beat the American Meilen Tu, in a semi-final spanning more than two hours. Tu, ranked 135 in the world, lost her opening service game but battled back to break Zvonareva in the eighth.
The Russian, who has slipped to 77 in the rankings after a long struggle for fitness and form, saved two set points in the 10th but stumbled again in the 12th in the face of a confident opponent, conceding the set on a double-fault at 0-40.
Tu raced to a 4-1 lead in the second set but, perhaps unnerved at the prospect of claiming a place in the final, visibly tightened up, at which Zvonareva sensed a way back.
With Tu missing opportunities she had previously taken, the Russian broke in the seventh and ninth games to lead 5-4 before serving out to force a third set, in which two early breaks left the American facing a deficit from which she could not recover.Reuse content